Preparing for High Risk Low Frequency Incidents on College Campuses


Active Shooter Incidents (ASI) are a re-occurring and all-too-familiar trend in the United States. The role of Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL) administrators is vital to the overarching preparation of policies and procedures for an effective response to ASIs. IHL administrators’ support of educational law enforcement is marginal, partly due to political power structures within the universities. Due to the increasing awareness of the consequences of an ASI, it is becoming more apparent that the IHLs must be better coordinated to prepare for High Risk Low Frequency Incidents.

Keywords: Active Shooter, High Risk Low Frequency Incidents, College Campuses, Educational Law Enforcement, Keith Lawrence, Monica Quan.



The political power structures of Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL) have historically had an impeding effect on Educational Law Enforcement. As High Risk Low Frequency incidents such as Active Shooter Incidents become more prevalent, funding to improve the capabilities of educational law enforcement is necessary to meet the threat.



Active Shooter Defined

An Active Shooter is defined by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as: “An individual(s) actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area; in most cases, there is no pattern or method to their selection of victims.” [1]


Active Shooter Incidents in Institutions of Higher Learning

The fear of an active shooter incident (ASI) continues to be a focus of many IHL administrators; however, the ability to adequately prepare and respond to an ASI depends upon the capabilities of educational law enforcement personnel. This researcher found a lack of peer reviewed literature on decision making, problem solving, and solutions for ASIs for university campuses around the United States. This is surprising as ASIs are a re-occurring and all-too-familiar trend on college campuses in the United States.[2]

In the report, A Study of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States Between 2000 and 2013, the FBI researched 160 Active Shooter Incidents over the last 14 years. This research indicated 24.3% of the ASI’s were in educational settings, with 24 ASI incidents in schools and 12 incidents in IHLs.[3] The FBI study also revealed a developing and disturbing trend; in the first seven years of this study, 2000 to 2006, there was an average of 6.4 incidents per year. However in the last seven years, 2007 to 2013, the number of ASIs increased to 16.4 ASI incidents a year.[1]

Figure 2: FBI Study of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States Between 2000 and 2013 [1]


High Risk Low Frequency Incidents

To properly prepare for critical incidents on college campuses, educational law enforcement agencies must have the unwavering support of the IHL administration. This will require a significant culture shift for most IHL administrators. To prepare for High Risk Low Frequency Incidents, IHLs need access to professional equipment and training for Educational Law Enforcement.

As a practice, educational law enforcement has been shown to be underfunded and under trained to adequately respond to High Risk Low Frequency Incidents.[5] To improve public safety on college campuses, it is essential that IHL administration implement a constructive process to improve educational law enforcement capabilities.

The increasing need for financial resources requires an understanding by IHL power structures to ensure that public safety is properly funded. For this to happen, IHL and educational law enforcement executives need to collaborate when developing budgetary needs for the public safety issues on campuses. [4]

The cost of hiring and equipping law enforcement personnel, as well as the training required to develop increased capabilities, are at the forefront of the Active Shooter topic. In Dr. Lee Wagner’s study; “Levels of authority among California community college police chiefs regarding active shooters on campus,” he identifies issues that continue to limit the ability to prepare for active shooters on campuses. Wagner found public safety budgets were consistently a low priority in California Community Colleges. Wagner’s study suggests these budgets favor instructionally oriented resources.[5]


Active Shooter Threat

Active shooter incidents are on the rise with 160 incidents between 2000 and 2013, an average of 11.4 yearly.[1]  Other FBI research indicates the rising ASI trends between 2007 and 2013 have increased to 16.4 incidents per year.[3] This FBI research is disturbing. However, what is more distressing is the reality that an active shooter suspect shoots someone every 15 seconds until they are stopped.[6]

When preparing institutional budgets, IHL administrators should recognize these statistics as a stark reality and fully understand the significant consequences of not preparing educational law enforcement to respond to High Risk Low Frequency incidents. IHL administrators need to have a straightforward conversation with their public safety executives to determine if there are appropriate staffing levels and equipment to respond to critical incidents. A vital topic that needs to be discussed is that the lack of capability to respond to ASIs will result in increasing student, faculty and staff deaths.

Figure 3: 160 ASIs identified between 2000-2013 [1]

Educational law enforcement experts agree that the lack of resources and personnel are the major factors affecting the capability to effectively respond to critical incidents.[5] With over 4000 IHLs serving nearly 16 million students, campus safety has never been more important in today’s college communities. The inclusion of educational law enforcement executives in the preparation of IHL budgets will improve campus safety funding, resulting in an increased level of professionalism in campus law enforcement.[5]


Political Power Structures in Institutions of Higher Learning

Wagner’s research indicates professional relationships between IHL and educational law enforcement administrators must be better developed to ensure the capability to respond to High Risk Low Frequency incidents. Moreover, there must be an unequivocal partnership between the IHL and educational law enforcement administrators.[5]

Unfortunately, and all too often, public safety is poorly equipped and has inadequate training. This limiting factor does not allow Educational Law Enforcement the ability to effectively train for or respond to High Risk Low Frequency Incidents. Wagner’s research found IHLs tend to rely on the local police for critical incident responses; further, the poly-centric power structure of IHL administrators have shown limited understanding of the authority needed for educational law enforcement to effectively respond to critical incidents. Moreover, Wagner’s study identified that IHL administrators tend to work against the implementation of communication practices that would give educational law enforcement the financial resources to effectively respond during campus emergencies.[5]


Relying on local police to be the primary responders to High Risk Low Frequency Incidents on college campuses is inherently flawed. Local incidents such as civil unrest or natural disasters require municipal police assets to handle such emergencies. This will cause a delayed response to the college community if they also experience an incident. As a result, in civil unrest or natural disaster incidents, IHLs will be left to handle emergencies with limited or no municipal police assets, and campus public safety officers would be the first responders.

This researcher experienced this phenomenon firsthand during the Los Angeles Riots in 1992 while working at a university in Los Angeles. During this crisis, LAPD was fully deployed on a Tactical Alert and did not have the resources or manpower to provide protection to the university. The security and protection of the university was left to the university’s Department of Public Safety.

Fortunately, the campus escaped the riot with little to no damage, as the Public Safety Officers met the challenge during that crisis. However, the lessons learned from the Los Angeles Riot in 1992 inspired significant changes in that department, including an expanded budget, increased manpower, and additional training and resources for the Public Safety Officers.

This type of reaction is typical with IHL administrators. Often, campus politics and apathetic voices concerning public safety dominate the conversations when discussing Public Safety budgets. It is all too common that only after a critical incident will IHL administrators support the budgetary needs of Educational Law Enforcement.[5]


Impact of a Critical Incident

The publication of the Jeanne Clery Act provides greater awareness of crime on campus. This publication highlights the need for emergency preparedness to deal with emerging threats. The Clery disclosures, combined with frequent media reports of ASIs, continue to have a negative impact on the ability of some Colleges and Universities to recruit and retain students.

The FBI found in its research that active shooter incidents happen in small, medium and large campus communities. Moreover, ASIs occur in all economic areas and no campus is immune to the potential of an ASI.2 A disturbing trend shows that between 2006 and 2013 the frequency of ASIs increased, with an average of 16.4 incidents per year,3 emphasizing that it is not a matter of if an active shooter will happen, it is of when.


Active Shooter Profile

The challenges of identifying Active Shooter suspects prior to an incident are concerning. Research shows that ASIs have the potential of occurring on any campus, in any community, at any time.2 However, FBI research indicates that a profile on Active Shooters does not exist. Therefore, we are unable to criminally profile potential active shooter suspects.  

The immediate response to an ASI is paramount to Educational Law Enforcement’s ability to protect the campus community. Appropriate preparation and training for campus public safety professionals requires that IHL administrators fully understand the consequences of not preparing for an ASI. With the understanding that statistics indicate an active shooter shoots a victim every 15 seconds during an incident, proper funding, training, and resources for public safety are vital to mitigate the loss of life during an ASI.

The ASI at the University of Florida (FSU) on November 20, 2014, is an example of how the loss of life can be limited during an ASI. In the FSU ASI, the shooter was engaged and neutralized by the campus police within two minutes of the initial call; the response of Campus Police limited the injuries to three victims. Considering the suspect was reported to be mentally unstable and was randomly shooting students in the library during peak hours, the situation could have been much worse without immediate intervention by campus police.[7]


Institutions of Higher Learning Responsibility

IHL administrators are involved in planning, organizing, directing, controlling and evaluating activities of departments within the Universities, including Educational Law Enforcement. IHL administrators are also responsible for the budgetary support, leadership and oversight of campus public safety departments. [5] The role of IHL administrators has never been more important in the preparation for High Risk Low Frequency Incidents than it is today.

Currently, perception of campus public safety is not consistent within educational law enforcement departments in the United States. Some agencies enjoy a positive relationship with IHL administrators and are well prepared to meet today’s threats, while other educational law enforcement Agencies have a less than optimal relationship with their institution’s leadership. In Dr. Lee Wagner’s dissertation titled Levels of authority among California community colleges police chiefs regarding active shooters on campus, he found that levels of authority were inconsistent among California Community College Police Departments; these inconsistencies have a significant impact on their ability to prepare for ASIs. [5]

In Dr. Wagner’s research, he discusses the varied levels of support educational law enforcement agencies. This factor has a significant impact on many Community College Police Departments’ prepare for High Risk Low Frequency Incidents in the California Community College districts. The majority of the anonymous panelists in Dr. Wagner’s study reported that budgetary constraints, lack of personnel, and poor equipment and training had a negative impact on public safety. Also, Dr. Wagner’s study indicated funding for public safety was a low priority within most California Community College districts.

A quote from a panelist in Dr. Wagner’s study summed up the prevalent theme in educational law enforcement when referring to budgetary issues:

“Police departments and public safety in general, are not considered essential when dividing budget monies. Instruction always takes the lion’s share of the available funds.” [5]

The panelists referenced in Dr. Wagner’s dissertation agree that to properly prepare for a High Risk Low Frequency Incident on campus there needs to be an increase in manpower, equipment and training to handle the severity of these types of incidents. Moreover, without an increase in budget to increase personnel and equipment, the ability to respond to High Risk Low Frequency Incidents will be compromised.

Local law enforcement agencies also play an important role in the effectiveness of an ASI response. The support from local law enforcement agencies will depend on the size and relationship with the college community. In large urban areas, local police resources can be sufficient to augment educational law enforcement during High Risk Low Frequency Incidents; however, in rural communities, local police resources are not as readily available.

Further, Dr. Wagner’s research indicated cooperation between campus public safety and the local police agencies are inconsistent. Wagner’s study revealed most panelists reported good relations with local police agencies, while a minority expressed fair to poor relationships with community public safety partners. The primary cause of the conflict was reported as a lack of communication between the agencies.

Some larger municipal or county agencies developed a sense of arrogance toward educational law enforcement; furthermore, the municipal or county agencies made little effort to establish professional relationships with their college law enforcement partners. A professional working relationship between local police and educational law enforcement agencies, along with the need for a properly trained and equipped educational public safety agency, is imperative to be able to meet the threats associated with High Risk Low Frequency Incidents. [5]


Institutions of Higher Learning Leadership

Educational law enforcement agencies have a responsibility to the university community to be professional public safety agencies. They enforce laws and reduce criminal activity in university communities.[8]

Unfortunately, IHL administrators sometimes interfere with educational law enforcement on campus. In a notable example, we can look at Penn State University’s sex abuse scandal, where the actions or inaction of the campus police were at the forefront of the investigation.9 The overarching question in the scandal was why the campus police were not notified at the time of the incidents. Penn State employees from janitors to the coaching staff subverted law enforcement by reporting the incident to other university officials instead of the campus police. As a result, Jerry Sandusky’s predatory actions led to multiple sexual assaults on pre-adolescent boys, many of which occurred on the Penn State campus from 1996 to 2011.



Lessons learned from uncoordinated leadership and uncooperative command structures emphasize the need for effective communications between IHL administrators and educational law enforcement. Effective communication is vital to educational law enforcement’s successful response to High Risk Low Frequency Incidents. [10]

In a shooting on December 13, 2013 at Arapahoe High School in Centennial, Colorado, a school security officer claimed administrators ignored and/or punished officers who raised concerns relating to security.11 Disturbingly, another security officer reported campus administrators were previously made aware of Karl Pierson, the suspect in the Arapahoe High School shooting. Security officials told school administrators that Pierson used the internet to research guns and had made a death threat against his debate coach. Shockingly, the administration did not take the threat seriously before the deadly incident. [12]


Threat Assessment

As we see from the Penn State and Arapahoe incidents, these administrators subverted and manipulated educational law enforcement and their efforts to effectively address security issues on their campuses. Lessons should be learned from these tragedies; security issues need to be addressed appropriately by trained personnel who understand how to evaluate and assess threats. It could be argued that if Arapahoe High School leaders would have taken a more active approach to address the threat, this deadly situation could have been avoided.

In another incident, a campus catastrophe was averted by the decisive action of IHL leaders. In this case study, Jared Loughner, a Pima Community College student, was suspended from college after faculty and students expressed concerns regarding his aggressive and odd behavior. Loughner’s erratic behavior, along with five separate confrontations with campus police, led IHL administrators to place Loughner on suspension for violating the student code of conduct. [13]

Tragically, three months after Loughner was suspended from college, he shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford and 18 others; killing six. In this case, violence still occurred; however, faculty, staff, and the students were not targeted due to the decisive action of IHL administrators and campus police. [14]



The challenge in developing a standard operating procedure for all educational law enforcement departments is that educational law enforcement duties, responsibilities, and training vary among IHLs. On one hand, there are well-trained and properly equipped police officers that provide public safety for their university communities; in other institutions there is sub-standard equipment and inadequate budgets, resulting in poorly trained security with the inability to provide adequate service to their communities. [15]

Budgeting for High Risk Low Frequency Incidents such as an active shooter can be challenging when public safety is not seen as a priority. However, when IHL administrators take a broader view of public safety, educational law enforcement departments have the budget to equip and train officers to respond to High Risk Low Frequency Incident. [5] The unfortunate reality is that all universities are one incident away from being a featured story in the media. Because of this, the mind set in preparing for High Risk Low Frequency incidents must change. Again, it is not “IF” an Active Shooter will happen it is “WHEN” it will happen.


Normalcy Bias

When attempting to justify increased resources to meet the challenges of High Risk Low Frequency Incidents, the normal daily activities of public safety often overshadow the potential risk of such volatile events; this is known as a Normalcy Bias. However, what we know of High Risk Low Frequency Incidents is that they are by no means normal. These incidents, whether natural disasters, civil unrest, or an active shooter incident, will test the capabilities of the most prepared campus law enforcement agency.

Normalcy Bias continues to be an obstacle to adequately preparing for High Risk Low Frequency Incidents with a prevailing “it won’t happen here” theme. The normalcy bias as well as the aphetic voice limits the increased financial resources needed to provide funding for personnel, training, and equipment associated with responding to High Risk Low Frequency Incidents.


Active Shooter Trends

The FBI study of the 160 active shooter incidents that occurred in the United States between 2000 and 2013 showcase an increase in ASIs; the trend shows more than 16 incidents per year between 2007 and 2013. This trend is a significant increase from six incidents per year in the first seven years. [1]

With 70% of the 1,043 casualties taking place in commerce or educational environments, active shooter incidents are shaping the culture in education law enforcement today. In Table 3, we see nine incidents that have shocked IHL communities, creating a shift in public safety expectations on college campuses throughout the United States.

Table 1: High Profile Violent Crimes Occurring On U.S. Colleges Campuses

The data in Table 3 represent just a few of the campus communities that have been irrevocably changed by the tragic loss of life as a result of an ASI. IHL administrators need to continue to evaluate their educational law enforcement agencies to determine if best practices are being used to prepare for High Risk Low Frequency Incidents.


Decision Making for

High Risk Low Frequency Incidents

Preparations for High Risk Low Frequency incidents are, by their nature, difficult for IHL administrators to comprehend. As a result, the inherent value of providing appropriate funding for training and equipment for educational law enforcement is not easily understood. [5] The budgetary focus on educational needs often outweighs increasing educational law enforcement budgets; in smaller institutions, increasing campus police budgets could have an financial impact academic departments. High Risk Low Frequency incident preparation continues to gain visibility throughout IHL communities; the discussion becomes more relevant when a there is a report of an active shooter incident on a college campus. Unfortunately, IHL leaders have framed ASIs as “Isolated Incidents” in the past, which can be an obstacle in providing funding to properly prepare for these events.

IHLs are communities that hold cultures and values specific to their institutions. Accepting that the culture of the world can at times be violent and unpredictable will challenge the mindset of many IHL administrators. However, this must be done in order for adequate funding for preparation for ASIs to occur.

The need for educational law enforcement to develop the capabilities to meet the requirements to respond to violent and unpredictable incidents is essential in mitigating the loss of life in High Risk Low Frequency Incidents. The support by IHLs Administrators for reallocating funding in Emergency Managements budgets that mitigate other High Risk Low Frequency incidents such as civil disturbances, natural disasters, or mass casualty incidents would help solve the ASI funding dilemma.

Most High Risk Low Frequency Incidents require similar resources and training as an active shooter incident; by reallocating funding from Emergency Management for High Risk Low Frequency Incidents, IHLs would be better prepared to meet the needs of most emergencies.


Local Law Enforcement

The use of local authorities to respond to High Risk Low Frequency Incidents has inherent problems; as an example, the officers from the local police department may not know the geography of the campus. When seconds count, such as in the response to an ASI, those seconds can be the determining factor between saving a life and identifying a victim.

In other High Risk Low Frequency Incidents such as a civil disorder, natural disaster, or mass casualty, local law enforcement resources will be limited; the college will be left to manage their incident with restricted support from the local authorities. When you look at the complexity of preparing for a High Risk Low Frequency Incident through this lens, you can start to understand why educational law enforcement requires the financial support for training and equipment to meet the needs of the community.



With the reality of limited funds, competing financial priorities and increasing budgetary constraints, public safety funding continues to be a low priority for many colleges. Often, it is not until there is a tragic event on campus that IHL administrators realize the importance of adequate funding for campus safety departments.

In the active shooter incident at Florida State University on November 20, 2014, Campus Police were on scene and neutralized the threat in less than two minutes, limiting the casualties to two students and one staff member. Without the immediate response of FSU Police, this incident could have been considerably worse, given the fact there were hundreds of students in the library studying. The FSU incident is just another shocking example of the unpredictable nature of an Active Shooter. The suspect in this incident, Myron May, was a FSU alumnus and a practicing attorney, far from the image of a mentally ill, homicidal killer. [7] 

With more than 4000 college campuses in the United States, ASIs are comparatively low frequency.5 It is somewhat understandable that many IHL administrators view ASIs as isolated incidents and have not felt the pressure to increase spending on public safety. However, when we look at past ASIs, the lessons learned are always the same.

There is not a profile for active shooters; active shooter incidents are unpredictable and can happen anywhere in any community. Moreover, the consequences will have a significant negative financial impact on the institution through the loss of enrollment, reduced retention and costly litigation. With this in mind, this researcher believes the IHL Administrators’ budgetary concern should include how the university properly prepares campus law enforcement for High Risk Low Frequency Incidents on campus.


  1. U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2013). A study of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States between 2000 and 2013. Retrieved from
  2. Schweit, K. W. (2013). Addressing the problem of the Active Shooter. Retrieved from
  3. Gray, R. H. (2014, September 25). FBI report says Active Shooter Incidents on the rise. Campus Safety Magazine. Retrieved from
  4. Shockley-Zalabak, P. S. (2011). Fundamentals of organizational communication: Knowledge, sensitivity, skills, values (8th ed.)
  5. Wagner, L. (2010). Levels of authority among California community college police chiefs regarding active shooters on campus (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from
  6. Perry, C. D. (2009, February 28). Theme park provides backdrop for critical-response police work. Herald. Retrieved from
  7. Cotterell, B. (2014). Alumnus shot dead after wounding three at Florida State University. Retrieved from
  8. Pope, J. (2011, November 18). Role of campus police at Penn State questioned. Associated Press. Retrieved from
  9. Hopkins, J. P., & Neff, K. (2014). Jurisdictional confusion that rivals Erie: The jurisdictional limits of Campus Police [Entire issue]. Montana Law Review, 75(1 Winter 2014). Retrieved from
  10. Donahue, A., & Tuohy, R. (2006, Jul). Lessons we don’t learn: A study of the lessons of disasters, why we repeat them, and how we can learn from them. Homeland Security Affairs, 2. Retrieved from
  11. Torres, Z., & Brown, J. (2014, September 4). Second security guard raises concerns after Arapahoe High shooting. Denver Post. Retrieved from
  12. 2nd Security Officer claims Arapahoe high still has security issues: Arapahoe High School security guard says administrators didn’t properly address death threats or campus security concerns before incident. (2014, September 4). Campus Safety Magazine. Retrieved from
  13. Johnson, K. (2014, June/July). You’ve suspended a potential aggressor… now what? Campus Safety Magazine, 22(3), 22-24. Retrieved from
  14. Christie, B., & Spafat, E. (2012, August 7). Jared Loughner pleads guilty in Arizona shooting that wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Daily Freeman News. Retrieved from
  15. Wilson, C., & Wilson, S. A. (2011, Mar/Apr). Debunking the myths: An evaluation of opposition to the arming of campus law enforcement officers in Rhode Island. Campus Law Enforcement Journal, 41(2), 16-26. Retrieved from
  16. Walters, M. M. (2013). Making campuses safer and staying out of court: leadership practices facilitating compliance with The Jeanne Clery Act (Doctoral dissertation, California State University, Sacramento). Retrieved from

About the Author

Daniel Hect, MLS Director of Campus Safety

Doctoral Candidate, Argosy University Ontario, CA 91761
Corresponding Author: hectd@deni-


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *